James Madison as a Humming“Having outlived so many of my contemporaries, I ought not toforget that I may be thought to have outlived myself.”—James MadisonWe think of them most ideally as a uniform force,an original American “band of brothers,” united—just as the States were becoming—in hammering outa gameplan for “democracy.” But Adams saidof Franklin he was “malicious,” “cunning,” he“will provoke…insinuate…intrigue…maneuver…I cannot bear to be near him.” Thomas Painewas “a mongrel between Pig and Puppy, begottenby a wild Boar on a Bitch Wolf.” Hamilton saidof Adams, according to Joseph P. Ellis, he was“mentally deranged and unfit for the presidency.”Etc. They were heroic—but human. (The difficultfact of slavery confounded them all.) We chooseto remember the heroism, to picture them workingin concert toward a noble end—and “concert”is apt here: single notes in a grandand overriding orchestration of political goals.So that when only one remained (ironicallyMadison, the most frail of them) he wasn’t himselfso much as the lingering last soundof a generation. Cue in blues musicianHenry Walker, circa 1955, playinga Wichita club on Ninth Street, jammin’, JAM-min,lost in it, then suddenly…a shot.“My guitar went twang, and I jumped off the stage.I wasn’t there, but my guitar was still humming”—the way any spirit might still humfor a little residual momentwhen its body is suddenly gone.Attention Span“[Alexander] Hamilton rose to deliver a six-hour speech that hisbiographer has called ‘brilliant, courageous, and completely daft.”’(at the Federal Congress that resulted in the Constitution)—Joseph J. EllisAll of them sense it coming, and when Hamilton—the most prepared and passionately investedof the speakers—on June 18 of 1787 opens the gatesto his cavalry charge, his greatAtlantic seaboard storm, of oratorical fortitude,there in the east room of the Pennsylvania State Housewith the sun through the high south windows(“it was fearfully hot,” a circumstance exacerbatedby “close-fitting wigs and woolen coats, close-buttoned”),the fifty-five delegates (assuming all were therethat day) have no choice but to fuss at their likeliest posturesin the arc of Windsor chairs the way a dog doeson a rug in front of the fireplace, before it decideson its final, least uncomfortable arrangement.He was normally “impeccably dressed”and “possessed a rich voice.” Jefferson saidthat, when he galloped into any contention, he appearedas “a host unto himself.” “He could go for hours at a time,without notes [and this as opposed to Madison,who squirreled away his notes in his hat], and alwayscasting a spell.” And so they may chafe, as the lightoutside the windows deepens into mid-afternoon(“a day’s work,” someone described the speech,“confident, brimming over with facts and figures”;someone else: “a harangue”),they may scratch, they may unobtrusively spiderwalktheir fingers across the table top, but theypay rapt attention. Even Benjamin Franklin?Even Benjamin Franklin. —Who, at eighty-oneis the eldest there by far, and “suffered greatlyfrom gout and kidney stones“—essentially, these werehandsaws sized to his nerves, that never stoppedproducing pain—and he had to be carried there every day“in a sedan chair imported from Paris, in the handsof four muscular prisoners on day releasefrom Walnut Street jail; this was the only modeof transportation his body could bear.” For him,merely sitting in public and listening strictlyis heroic. It’s an age of uncomplainingendurance of difficulty: I can’t imagineworking in a room without electric lightor utilities company heat and air,while needing to dip a quill in an inkstandevery—what? every ten or eleven words?—and creating,let’s say, a novel that way (my edition of Tristram Shandyis over 500 pages); but Hamilton “wrote a letter [the onethat argued the need for this convention at which he’s holding forth]that, printed, covered seventeen pages.” Forget the Constitution,the Declaration: their shopping lists were heroic!Nor can I imagine (and the books I’ve consulteddon’t help) the human element: how many belches and fartsdo fifty-five people produce in six hours, and are they emitted—then and there—covertly, or are they simply an acceptable, forthrightmusic? How many ahems and harrumphs?How many spittoons (if any) make a visible punctuationalong the wall? I’ve only read “history’‘—which is different, of course,from “the past.” I only know that a nation was—with many a petty grievance, lapse of conscience,suddenly blurted dyspepsia, as well as the useful lubricationof compromise and, occasionally, nobility of vision—being createdout of thirteen independent states. I only know that Hamiltonpoured torrentially forth, and for six long hoursthe rest of them tried to follow along enchantedly,as best they could. And their phones?Their phones were so turned off, they hadn’t yet been invented.
Copyright © 2018 by Albert Goldbarth
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission
Albert Goldbarth has published more than 30 collections of poetry and essays, including The Adventures of Form and Content (Graywolf Press, 2017) and The Loves and Wars of Relative Scale (Lost Horse Press, 2017). He has received the National Book Critics Circle Award twice, and has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. He is the Adele B. Davis distinguished professor of humanities at Wichita State University in Kansas.
Green Mountains Review, housed at Johnson State College in Vermont, is a biannual, award-winning literary magazine publishing poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, literary essays, interviews, and book reviews by both well-known writers and promising newcomers. For the past quarter-century GMR has produced issues of international scope with work regularly selected or cited in the Best American Poetry, Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays, Best American Fantasy and Pushcart Prize series; The Boston Globe recently cited GMR as one of the top ten literary magazines in New England.
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